So often we smartphone-reliant, vehicle-driving, grocery-shopping inhabitants of developed countries hear that we are too separated from nature. This is very true. We don’t think twice about our reliance on fossil fuels to take us place to place; the thought of “relying on nature” conjures up images of spear-clenching Neandertals despite the fact that up until very recent times, people in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries relied on nature quite a bit. Travel, farming, and reading maps required basic to intermediate knowledge of geography and the physical environment as a whole. Especially with the rise of Almanacs, sun/moon/weather patterns were considered to be much more general knowledge at the time. 

I often wonder what it would be like to plop a 20-something from “the past” (anywhere up to the early 20th century) alongside a current millennial and ask each of them to complete some sort of task involving the physical world (understanding directions to a place, for example), and just observe how they each respectively solve the problem. How obvious and extreme would their differences in problem-solving be? Would these cognitive variances be attributed—at least in part—to differences in exposure to nature?

One particular society that not only relied on nature, but was truly fluid with it, was (and in many ways still are), the Hopi.

The Hopi American Indian tribe, located in the same region of Arizona for over a millenium, descended directly from a group of Ancestral Pueblo people as early as the 12th century BCE. The Hopi are believed to have lived in the same area the longest of any North American tribe. Since the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many ethnographic and archeological studies of the Hopi have been conducted since trade expeditions drew whites to their region (Loftin, 2003, p. 68). Despite the attempt of the United States government and others to impose cultural change in their society (Loftin, p. 69) the Hopi have largely retained and continue to use astronomical methods originating from the beginnings of their prehistory. Furthermore, this time-honored astronomy is imbedded with strong cultural significance because the knowledge it provides is fundamental to not only basic timekeeping and agricultural methods, but also their ceremonies, organization of daily life, and understanding of the natural world. The astronomical methods used by the Hopi people did not serve a single purpose; rather, they held pronounced cultural meaning in addition to their practicality. Main implementations of Hopi astronomy that are also culturally manifested include solar and lunar-based calendars, rituals, and the direction system.

Timekeeping in the form of calendars, which regulates both agricultural and ceremonial event cycles, is one of the most prominent and ancient applications of Hopi astronomy. The Hopi permanently transitioned from a meandering to sedentary society between 500-700 BC (Loftin, p. 63) which brought the need to establish agricultural organization (Aveni, 2003, p. 171).  These calendars originated extremely early and have endured throughout agrarian Hopi existence. Additionally, unlike many observed ancient societies such as the Mayans or Incas, which are now non-existent, the Hopi people remain thriving in most of their original, indigenous locations, relatively isolated until contact with European missionaries in the 1870’s (McCluskey, 1977, p. 175). This seclusion allowed for the ancient Hopi calendar to survive and be observed in the modern era. Its deep-rooted integration (along with other astronomical methods) into daily life and culture has, in comparison to the length of time that the Hopi have inhabited their Anasazi region, only recently been studied.

The complex Hopi calendar was first studied in the 1890’s in one of their most undisturbed present-day villages (McCluskey, 1977, p. 175). Regulated by horizon sun observations, it was not strictly reserved for agricultural usage (Ruggles, 2005, p. 186). Ceremonies dealing with many aspects of cultural life occurred throughout the year according to lunar and solar calendars; along with “rain” and “good harvest,” these various astronomically regulated ceremonies also brought “good health” and “peace.” (Ruggles, p. 186).

The basis of both the Hopi agricultural and ceremonial calendars (which often are referred to together throughout the literature) is tracking the points of sunrise and sunset on specific locations of the horizon. In addition, these horizon points “are themselves sacred places” (Ruggles 187). They are associated with and often are the sites of certain festivals, usually composed of a sacred Tawaki (Sun’s House), which serves as a point of reference, identification, and religious significance for the Sun Priests (Aveni 1982 p. 34). The Tawaki usually contains a kiva, which is a small chamber reserved for spiritual or religious rites (Aveni 1982 p. 34). The fact that the Tawakis, so important in Hopi religion, are placed on the very spots that the sun rises and sets is no accident; this deliberate connection of physicality with spirituality entirely illustrates the cultural nature of their astronomy.

The observance of Soyal, a solstitial festival celebrating the 9-day-long winter solstice ceremonies, is one of the religious festivals regulated by astronomy and a perfect example to explain the many astronomical facets of Hopi ceremonies. First, it launches the making of prayer-sticks, symbolic objects pertaining to the specific festival, to be placed at a Sun Altar about ten kilometers away towards the midwinter sunrise (McCluskey, 1977, 176). McCluskey states that one of the purposes of Soyal is to “turn back the Sun” from going too south (176). However, in addition to the presence of the cultural material of the prayer sticks, there are other, ritualistic reasons for Soyal, shown in the katsinas.

Like all the other ceremonies regulated by the astronomical calendar, the presence of the spiritual katsina or kachina (plural, katsinam or kachinas) are essential to the festivals. The following is the definition of katsinam from the official Hopi Tribe Website:

Katsinam are Hopi spirit messengers who send prayers for rain, bountiful harvests and a prosperous, healthy life for humankind. They are our friends and visitors who bring gifts and food, as well as messages to teach appropriate behavior and the consequences of unacceptable behavior. Katsinam, of which there are over two hundred and fifty different types, represent various beings, from animals to clouds. (Visitor Etiquette from the official Office of Cultural Preservation).

The presences of the katsinam occur at specific times in the Hopi year during their respective ceremonies or rituals. They are impersonated in the form of masks and plentiful dancing, along with dolls and other symbolic objects (Kennard, 1971, p. 12). So Soyal, like many other festivals, cannot commence without its respective Sun Priest dressed as the Soyal-specific katsinam entering the village from a specific direction (in this case south), placing prayer sticks by a ceremonial kiva, and thus introducing the beginning of the Winter Solstice (Kennard, p. 20). More katsinam are introduced during the rest of Soyal and during other, sequential ceremonies throughout the year. The fundamental organization for these annual traditions is the Hopi calendar maintained by solar (and lunar) observations. These observations are the reference points on when to start and end each festival and move fluidly to the next, and are organized within a systematic calendar.

In 1977, McCluskey quantified the Hopi calendar in terms of calculating the range of dates, cycles, and degree measurements for different Hopi moon months, including analyzing the ceremonial and agricultural cycles and identifying observation points of solar festivals and lunar festivals. (See Table 1). Based on his data, it is clear that agricultural and ceremonial events are not only both regulated by the same calendar, but also concur or overlap at specific time points. Therefore, the Hopi’s basic astronomical purpose, agricultural precision, is interconnected on a higher level with religion, spirituality, and culture as a whole. One of the best examples of this is the Powa, the month dedicated to planting (McCluskey 1977 p. 176). During this month, a variety of ceremonies and rituals are conducted that illustrate fundamental agricultural as well as cultural purposes. First, bean planting occurs following the sight of the crescent moon (McCluskey 176). Soon after, corn and seeds are planted. Most significantly, just before the start of the Powa, a chant is sung containing 20 almost-identical verses that change only to incorporate the different points on the horizon where the sun rises and sets (McCluskey 176). This deliberate concurrency of an idiosyncratic ritual (chanting) along with one of the most common ancient archeoastronomical reference methods (solar horizon points) is perhaps the most striking example of the intertwined nature of Hopi astronomy and culture. 

McCluskey focused on the quantification of the Hopi calendar. However, I would like to elaborate on its simultaneous astronomical and cultural implications. Some of the 17 lunar months are named with an agricultural purpose, such as “Planting Moon” and “Harvest Moon,”—common farming activities regulated in many ancient societies by astronomy. But other months exhibit names such as “Purification Moon,” “Dangerous Moon,” and “Initiates’ Moon”—implying the time of what are clearly culturally significant time periods. In addition, some of the names of the months, such as “Kya-muya” and “Isu-muya” are repeated, reflecting the dualistic nature of the Hopi year (McCluskey p. 177).  It is interesting to note that the dualistic months—the months that occur during two separate durations per year—possess more cultural, and less utilitarian, names. While Planting Moon, for example, occurs but one a year, Dangerous Moon occurs at two separate times. Furthermore, the Hopi year is dualistic in another way: the beginning half of the year (winter and spring) includes the katsinam and is centered on agricultural preparation; the second half does not incorporate the katsinam and focuses on harvest. Of course, it is impossible to pinpoint the exact reasons as to why and how the Hopi developed this dualistic system, but it is clear that the Hopi year is divided into two main cultural sections, each with significant rituals, months and purposes, and cannot occur without astronomical knowledge and unique cosmological belief systems.

Along with the ceremonial events and calendar, astronomy is fused into other aspects of Hopi daily life, such as the cardinal directions. The Hopi directions starkly contrast, both methodically and meaningfully, with the typical Western “North-South-East-West.” Although their directions usually match up or are very close to North-South-East-West, the directions—like so many other aspects of Hopi astronomy—take on a higher, dualistic, cultural meaning. These directions are centered about a particular village and therefore differ from one village to the next (Ruggles 187). Instead of being abstract, geometrical notions, the cardinal directions literally correspond with the directions of the sunset and sunrise positions on the horizon (Aveni, 1981, p.32). Additionally, the directions divide the world into four quarters, spanning outwards from the centered village. Conceptually, this division of the world (known as quadripartite cosmology and exhibited also in Navajo, Pawnee, and other indigenous North American groups) fuses the literal, physical Earth with the metaphysical and spiritual cosmos. The differences between spiritual reality and physical reality are blurred. More intertwined than separate, the directions connect the natural world with the spiritual and thus unite empirical observations with cosmology (Aveni, 1981, p. 34). The directions take on an almost characterized form, similar to the katsinam, because each is associated with a specific color and bird feathers (See Figure 1).

Figure 1 (Aveni, 1981, p. 33) shows the centered village (ñá-Kur-bi) and the six cardinal directions branching out, marking specific sunrise or sunset sites on the horizon along with their corresponding colors and feathers. The colors and feathers are manifested, usually, in katsina decorations during festivals and ceremonies; each color painted on a katsina pertains to a certain direction (Colton, 1959, p. 13). The cardinal directions and their respective associations, therefore, not only coordinate physical orientation but they also provide greater, more specific meaning to various forms of Hopi culture.

By bridging astronomical and cultural knowledge, the Hopi developed a system of scientific and spiritual understanding that has withstood a millennium, along with the resulting traditions that are so unique to their people. Their annual calendar, rituals and ceremonies, and cardinal directions attest to the equally astronomical and cultural basis for their customs. Stories such as the clearly dualistic creation myth acknowledge astronomy as the origin of life: two brothers, one of which brings Purification (or final judgment), travel from the heavens to start life on the fourth world: Earth (Mills, 2011). Shaping their understanding of the natural world, Hopi astronomy results in a unique, empirical worldview that regulates order and organization within daily life. 

References

Aveni, Anthony F. (1981). Archaeoastronomy in the New World. American Primitive Astronomy. 32-35.

Aveni, Anthony F. (2003). Archaeoastronomy in the Ancient Americas. Journal of Archaeological Research, 11(2). http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/41053196.pdf?acceptTC=true

Bostwick, T. W., Bates, B. C., & Zoll, K. J. (2010). Introduction to Archaeoastronomy of the American Southwest. Archaeoastronomy, 23.

Colton, Harold S. Hopi Kachina Dolls. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. 1959.

 Hopi Office of Cultural Preservation. (2015, March 5). Hopi Cycle of the Year: Kachina Ceremonies and Visitor Etiquette. Retrieved from http://www.crossingworlds.com/articles/hopicycle.html

Kennard, Edward A. (2002). Hopi Kachinas. New York: Kiva Publishing.

Loftin, J. D. (2003). Religion and Hopi Life. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

McCluskey, Stephen C. (1990). Calendars and Symbolism: Functions of Observation in Hopi Astronomy. Archaeoastronomy, 15.

McCluskey, Stephen C. (1977). The Astronomy of the Hopi Indians. Journal for the History of Astronomy, 8, 174-195

Mills, Thomas O. (2011). Hopi Creation Story and Global Warming (In Our Human Hands). Retrieved from http://www.nativetimes.com/index.php/life/commentary/5025-hopi-creation-story-explains-things

Ruggles, Clive L. N. (2005). Ancient Astronomy: An Encyclopedia of Cosmologies and Myth. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, Inc.

Voth, H. (1973). The Traditions of the Hopi. Millwood, N.Y.: Kraus Reprint.


 


Comments

07/20/2016 12:05am

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This post is very enlightening to me. I agree with all that you discuss. People nowadays were super relying on technology that they don't care anymore in nature. It's sad that each year many people, especially children were very exposed in gadgets. Many children don't interact with their environment that will make them aware of their surroundings. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on your blog. I hope many people will read this post.

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What a powerful post! It made me sit back and think of all the times I have taken everything for granted just because of the advanced technology that we have today. I cannot deny the fact the people are so reliable in smartphones, computers, Internet, and the like. I think it's because we have become so familiar with using these things and it provides us comfort and happiness, so it is hard for us to stop using them. I want to applaud you for raising awareness on this issue because most people do not care anymore about our surroundings. They abuse nature as if it is not the place where we live. I hope more people will read this post and be enlightened on how important nature really is.

06/06/2017 8:21pm

Who doesn't like star gazing? I think no one does. The only problem is some people simply won't give it time. Don't you know that it's our only way to communicate to our dear friends in outer space? I am sure they are out there waiting to see you stare at them. They will be happy to send good vibes.

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08/08/2016 11:29pm

He developed an amazing system of scientific and spiritual understanding that has withstood a millennium, along with the resulting traditions that are so unique to their people!

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Very educational and enlightening blog! Nowadays, most people rely on social media information, busy with different careers and stuff and Yes a smartphone-reliant people. I just hope Schools and various government and private organization would conduct research on being informative with how people forgot to connect their lives nowadays with nature. The sky, the sea, the ocean, mountains, rivers, upper and lower land must be preserved and valued. Hope parents would participate on this and teach children as well.

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10/05/2016 10:01am

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11/20/2016 10:54pm

Modern man and its society is already too far from its former connection with nature. It's sometimes nice to just go back to nature and appreciate her beauty before we've cut the last tree and inhaled the last good fresh air. We should do our best to save nature now. Thanks for the info about the Hopi Indian people.

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11/28/2016 7:59am

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12/08/2016 10:55am

So Soyal, like many other festivals, cannot commence without its respective Sun Priest dressed as the Soyal-specific katsinam entering the village from a specific direction (in this case south), placing prayer sticks by a ceremonial kiva, and thus introducing the beginning of the Winter Solstice (Kennard, p. 20).

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